Implicit in a Christian theology of creation is the idea that the details of the created world matter. To say that God generally created the earth implies that he also created its particulars, just as God’s love for the world as a whole includes his detailed love for each individual person within that world.
In her treatment of Plato’s Phaedrus, Catherine Pickstock defends Plato against the accusation that his thinking is so otherworldly that he undervalues the material earth and loses sight of its details. Pickstock writes:
As well as demonstrating that Plato did not wish to drive a wedge between form and appearance, the strongly positive view of methexis (participation) in the Phaedrus frees him from the charge of otherworldliness and total withdrawal from physicality, for the philosophic ascent does not result in a “loss” of love for particular beautiful things, since the particular participates in beauty itself. [Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 14]
Whether or not Pickstock’s reading of Plato is sound, her words speak to a problem in our age: a belief that participation in the divine must lead to a loss of concern for participation in the human realm.
For example, in Christian communities, we often speak generally or abstractly about loving God, but are sometimes at a loss when it comes to loving God in particular. What does it mean to love God particularly? As John tells us, it is impossible to love God and hate our neighbor. We may say that we love God, but if we do not love the details of God as expressed in our neighbor, our love is lacklustre.
These details of the Creator God, however, are not limited to humans, but extend to the whole of the creation and also the specifics of human activity. As with our love for God, we may also say that we love our neighbor, but if we do not pay attention to and involve ourselves in the details of her life, that love is flat.
This problem in Christian communities of non-participation is manifested in many different ways, but here let us use the example of what is often referred to as “worship” in evangelical churches. Evangelicals often use this word to refer to whatever kind of song or music their church happens to play during the Sunday Service. Now, if we asked a churchgoer what is worship, most would own that worship must of course extend into the rest of daily life; it must not just be something one does on Sunday. Some more reflective churchgoers may even tell us that worship is an opportunity to focus on God.
This answer is beginning to illuminate the question, but it brings us to another question: what does it mean to focus on God? How does a worshipper focus on God in the details or particulars? To look into this question, let us turn to a story, turning our eyes from the question to see it afresh in another place.
There once was a man who loved music. He studied its details, learned to play his instrument well and listened to music constantly. He also loved his wife very much and turned his attention to love, respect, enjoy and serve her in any way he could. Together, they kept their house clean and created a peaceful space in which to work, rest and play. The man also loved teaching his piano students and set his mind to thinking up creative ways to encourage his students’ love for music.
But one day this man’s love for God was called into question, for he never did the sorts of things one expects lovers of God to do. He did not raise his hands to the heavens during the Sunday church service. He was cordial to strangers but would not go out of his way to make small talk if there was nothing to say. He was not prone to profuse verbal expressions of his love for God, nor did he care much for spontaneous prayer.
One day the question was put to him outright by a well-meaning, but distracted friend: “Do you love God?” The man looked at his friend for a moment, perplexed. After a long pause, he said, “I love music. I love my wife. I am thankful for good wine and the rain that falls on the just and unjust alike.”
If earthly life is created by and suspended from the divine, then loving the divine entails a loving the earth; love for God is expressed through participation in the earth. While God is transcendent and distinct from his creation, he is also within his creation, pouring himself into it and sustaining it by his life-giving spirit.
We love God because he first loved us. We love the world because we love God — but loving the world is the means by which we love God (and God is the means by which we love the world). To focus on God does not mean that we withdraw from the world or avert our gaze. Rather, our vision is sharpened by the realization that earthly life is divinely created and sustained.
As much as I appreciate the expression of rapture implicit in the exhortation to “turn your eyes upon Jesus,” that popular song has, for a long time, left me unsettled because of the last line: “And the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.”
The things of earth will not grow dim as we gaze upon the the divine-human Jesus. The earth will be shockingly illuminated — all shall brighten, not fade, and our eyes shall trace its lineaments more readily than ever before. When heaven touches earth, earth does not pass away but is renewed, transformed, revealed. The divine will does not overpower the human will — the human will is caught up into the divine and is transformed into what it really is.
We do not lose our love for the particulars of the world, for it is in these particulars that God expresses himself. And as he is expressed in the world, so we too learn to love him in these expressions, knowing that when we welcome a child or entertain a stranger, we are meeting with God himself.